URBANA, Ill. – New wiring and computer network upgrades at a University of Illinois research facility, located over 200 miles south of the main campus, will allow 24-hour video access to the cattle housed at one of the country’s largest beef research centers.

Video cameras newly installed in the Dixon Springs Agricultural Center cattle barn will give U of I faculty, researchers, students on campus, and others beyond campus, the next best experience to being on site to observe procedures such as calving or vaccinations being administered, all in real time, said Frank Ireland, a U of I animal science researcher and superintendent of the research facility located in Simpson, Ill. 

“The cameras are a big piece of the whole picture,” Ireland said. “The DSAC animal science program, particularly beef cattle research, is one of the largest in the country because of the available acreage of land here. There’s a need for it because fewer and fewer places have the number of cattle that we do.” 

Ireland cited a recent report out of Texas A & M University that stated that most land-grant universities had reduced the number of beef cattle for research at their facilities during the last five years. “If that is true, it leaves the U of I as one of the few land-grant universities that has not reduced its numbers because we have Dixon Springs as a resource,” he said.

There are currently 1,400 to 1,500 head of cattle in the U of I system, with 850 to 900 of those cows at the Dixon Springs center. The center spans 5,000 total acres, facilitating research in animal science, agronomy, and natural resources and environmental sciences. 

“This allows us the opportunity to do research that other universities can’t,” Ireland said. “From a size and scope perspective, what we can do in a one-year research trial with 900 cows could take other facilities four years to complete using the same number of animals, which has really lent itself for U of I to be a leader in beef cattle research.

“This has resulted in major funding and research projects for U of I in genetics and genomics research with the American Angus Association, the American International Charolais Association, and the American Simmental Association. We have the ability to conduct feed efficiency studies with the GrowSafe system. Those organizations represent the largest breeds of cattle in the United States and they have put quite a lot of funding into the U of I system,” he said.

Looking beyond the opportunities for U of I research, Ireland said the vision is to allow not only U of I researchers, students, and veterinarians access into the broadcasts from the cattle barn, but to give access to other universities and programs

“Some colleges have teaching facilities with no live animals, and livestock judging is often done online using pictures,” he said. 

He also noted applications such as using the cameras to help in discussing and diagnosing illness or injuries in the cattle with off-site veterinarians as a benefit of the cameras. “Instead of me placing a phone call and describing what is happening with the cow, I can give the veterinarian the ip address and we could both be viewing the animal at the same time,” he said. 

Engineering and installation of new Internet network infrastructure at the center has allowed the center to move to a high-speed Internet connection that now enables connectivity between the center’s 10 buildings, as well as the capability to broadcast video via the Internet from the facility. The network upgrade now provides upload and download speeds of 100 megabytes per second at the facility.    

Shawnee Communications, a southern Illinois telephone and Internet company, has been the Internet service provider for the project.

Aaron Brown, a senior research programmer with U of I’s campus information technology group (CITES), said his group originally got involved with the project to bring wireless Internet to all the buildings at the research center, especially in the dorms and student housing facilities.

“The network upgrade is the key and the root to all of this,” Brown said. “We set out to make their Internet use look and feel as though they were on campus. You shouldn’t know you’re away from campus; they will be supported the same.”

In addition to expanded wireless Internet and the ability to broadcast real-time video, the upgrades will assist in the tracking of data that is part of the GrowSafe data collection program.  GrowSafe nodes on the cattle collect feed-intake data for each cow, sending it to a central database for U of I’s beef cattle feed efficiency studies. Brown said GrowSafe data alone was consuming the available bandwidth on the center’s previous network before the upgrades were put into place.

For now, three network-based cameras have been installed in the barn, positioned to capture different angles of the chutes and other areas of the barn. From a remote computer, the user can control the angle and zoom of the camera.  For example, Ireland said when cows are calving in the stalls, the camera can be zoomed in on the cow to see if she is lying down, drinking, or breathing rapidly. 

“There are vet students who graduate from vet school and never see a calf born,” Ireland added. “These students will be going out in May and starting in a practice with cattle producers. They may have to assist in difficult deliveries, but they have never seen a calf born. Now we can put cows who are calving in the chutes and broadcast that to a classroom of 130 vet students.”

During a recent research trial on behavior involving measuring bulls’ reactions to being electro-ejaculated, Ireland said the cameras could have allowed students to observe from their on-campus classroom, and logged and recorded movement of the bulls during the process, without having to send students down to the research center. “This has applications for research,” he said.

“Students could watch us take blood samples from 50 or 100 cows to see how we go about it, how to halter and position heads to get to the jugular vein, etc.,” Ireland said. “A still photo doesn’t show them that. There are a lot of tremendous educational opportunities here for university students or the public.”

In addition to the cattle barn, all the facilities at the research center, such as the crop sciences greenhouse and the Illinois Forest Resource Center, are wired for the capability to install and use cameras for distance learning, Brown said.